The Mission District's murals are, by definition, the most public of art, cheering up the urban landscape and deterring graffiti to boot. Yet the barrio's oldest mural -- we're talking by hundreds of years -- remains largely a secret.
In 2004, Mission Dolores church, which gave the neighborhood its name, hosted a ceremony to welcome Andy Galvan, its new curator. He is descended from the Ohlone tribe, which laid the first bricks of the mission in 1788 at the behest of the Catholic missionaries creating outposts across California.
For Galvan's ceremony, the church teamed with San Francisco-based animator Ben Wood to feature photos of a mural that had been hidden for 200 years behind the chapel's golden baroque altarpiece brought from San Blas, Mexico, in 1796. The mural was probably painted by Ohlone artists.
Wood crouched by a trapdoor above the altarpiece and stared down into the dark nook. "You can only see there's something there, but you don't know what it is," he says.So Wood and an archeologist created a rope-and-pulley system to lower a digital camera through the trapdoor and take 300 photos of the top portion of the mural. Wood fit the photos together on a computer to reveal the design: two sacred hearts, one with a sword plunged through it, and another with three daggers, all surrounded by a decorative swirl pattern.
Wood put the photos on a website, yet he wanted to make it even more public. "It's an important story in San Francisco because of the religious origins, and the relationships with the native people and the missionaries," he says.
Unfortunately, moving the altarpiece and restoring the original mural would cost millions of dollars. So Wood reached out to local artists Jet Martinez, Bunnie Reiss, and Ezra Eismont, the last two of whom recently painted the doomed Kittenzilla mural at Divisadero and Hayes streets. The owner of Mission Market at 22nd and Bartlett streets gave the team permission to re-create the mission's mural on the property's graffiti-marred wall behind Revolution Cafe.
The only roadblock now is that other historic issue: money. Woods would like to raise $8,000 to $10,000 to pay the muralists and buy materials. Making his pitch on the fundraising website Kickstarter, Wood hopes the artists can begin in March and that Anthony Sul, a young Ohlone artist, will join.
"Sometimes we have the opportunity to take something created so many years ago and bring it into this generation and retell the story," Reiss says.
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